Political Correctness, Diversity, and Changing with the Times …

So, I read on Pharyngula that there was some discussion about having a black James Bond, and some people reacted badly to that suggestion. One of the common complaints was about this being a “PC” — politically correct — move, and the comments are puzzling over what politically correct means, anyway. There were also a number of suggestions for other substitutions that they’d love to see, alarmingly often justified with nothing more than it would annoy the people who would be annoyed by them, which is hardly an artistic justification that I can get behind. I’ll outline and deal with them a little later, but right now let me talk a bit about how I see politically correct and why that sort of political correctness is a bad thing in my opinion.

I’m not going to bother checking the history of the phrase to see if I’m using the words right, but I see political correctness as exactly that: the sort of correctness that politicians do. Which means, to me, that it’s not about promoting real equality or real diversity, but is instead about looking the part. So regardless of the actual impact that the change has on the world or the work, the decision or change is made to look like you’re doing something and to avoid people complaining that you aren’t doing anything. In the world of TV and film, that usually means essentially “tokenizing” the work, by inserting “token” minorities but either not inserting them in any meaningful or important role — ie diversifying the supporting cast but not the main cast — and/or running the same sort of story and making the diversity meaningless when it wouldn’t be, and/or inserting that token character and driving their characterization by their stereotypes instead of as a full character. For me, in a TV or film role, there are two main conditions that make it a politically correct role:

1) The role is explicitly aimed at a specific group, be it black, Asian, female, gay, whatever in order to aim at diversity
2) But at the end of the day, the diversity is in name only: nothing about the role requires that it go to that group and they don’t rely on anything about that group in the characterization.

This wouldn’t count roles that are gender and race neutral that pick the best actor/actress for that role, and wouldn’t count roles where exploring the at least potentially different perspective is a key point of the character.

So now let me list the various suggestions:

1) A black James Bond.
2) The already done in the recent remake black Annie.
3) A female James Bond.
4) A female Doctor.
5) A female Doctor Strange in the upcoming movie.
6) Making Johnny Storm black in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie.

Now, the first thing to note about all of these suggestions is that they aren’t talking about roles. This isn’t about creating, say, a new Time Lord that is a woman and basing a series on that. Or making a female spy in the vein of James Bond in a new movie series, or even a spin off. No, this is all about taking an existing character in an existing popular series and making them black or female in order to add diversity (and, from the comments, piss off “bigots”). But two things strike me about this:

1) Changing anything in an existing franchise will always tick off the fans of that franchise, especially if you do it in an adaptation of a long-running franchise and not as a continuation of it (like the Marvel examples).

2) My cynicism sense is tingling, because this then really looks like an attempt to explore issues that people want explored or to add diversity that they want to have added in a case where they have a guaranteed audience, by attaching themselves to a popular franchise. So you get to make the points you want to make when people will watch, rather than building a franchise up yourself. It seems like trying to take the easy way to get what you want and not caring about ticking off the people who already liked the franchise and are the audience that you are exploiting to make your point.

Now, to make this work in an existing franchise, you have to make sure that you aren’t changing what made the franchise interesting in the first place, or to put it better you have to make sure that you don’t take away the things that make the audience want to watch it in the first place. If you’re going to change it that radically, then you might as well use a completely new franchise, or a spin off, instead of changing the main franchise. This goes double if you are doing an adaptation. And if you aren’t changing anything at all, then you definitely hit the bad kind of PC; introducing diversity for the sake of having it, not for the sake of doing anything with it. This works if you aren’t trying to add diversity, but if you’re doing it just to do it then at best you’re missing out on an opportunity and at worst you’re tokenizing.

So let’s look at the various suggestions in detail:

1) James Bond. I think that a black James Bond would work, if they simply decided to throw it open and look for the best person for the job, no matter what race it is. It wouldn’t change anything about the series, but that would be perfectly fine. But I would reasonably object to people saying something like “It’s time for a black James Bond”. No, it’s not. If the actor that they think works best in the traditional James Bond role happens to be black, that’s great. If not, that’s fine, too. There is nothing in James Bond that requires that he be black or any issues that we’d really want explored that require that he ever be black. So, if Idris Elba is the current actor that is best suited for Bond, then I say go for it, but if he isn’t and some white actor is better, then go for that.

That being said, I think that having a female James Bond is a very, very bad idea. The main premise of James Bond has been about this masculine ideal living the masculine ideal life, as we even saw in the “Our Man Bashir” parody of it. James Bond is supposed to be the guy that women want and men want to be. Making that a woman radically changes what I think is a fundamental part of the franchise and its popularity. Doing that is likely to reasonably alienate your audience. I have no problem with strong female leads — and tend to prefer them — but when I put on a James Bond movie that’s not what I’m after, just like when I put on a WWII documentary I’m not after action scenes with great special effects and when I watch the Transformers cartoons I’m not after a well-crafted and detailed story.

This is not to say that there aren’t interesting things that can be best explored in the action-spy game genre with a female protagonist. There are. But they can be best explored through new series that aim at that. Heck, you can even easily spin one off from the James Bond franchise, with a “The Spy Who Loved Me” kind of competition and then a new movie series that spins off from that to follow the female spy as she does her thing. And I’d love to see some of the suggested actresses do that. But I think it a bad idea to make James Bond that, as that takes away why people like James Bond in the first place.

While writing this, I thought of something interesting: I’m much less open to a female James Bond than I’d be to a female Maxwell Smart. The reason, though, is that Maxwell Smart being male isn’t as critical to the character, and changing Smart to be female adds a lot of new humour and parody opportunities that wouldn’t have to rely on the ones that Don Adams did so well. For example, you could start with the claim about James Bond that it’s the number and name that get reused, and give her the name “Maxwell Smart”, with the Chief apologetically saying that it’s what they do now and she’s the person best qualified for the job, which opens up a brand new running gag about people reacting to that fairly obviously male name. And there are a lot of different ways to translate the typical Smart traits to her, which would lead to a new and interestingly funny take on the issue. So I think doing that would lead to a traditional yet fresh take on Get Smart that could be very good, and I’d say better than the Carrell movie was, all because of the opportunities it affords.

The thing to note is that I suspect that a lot of the people crowing about how great a female James Bond would be would dislike the idea of making Maxwell Smart female (although, I haven’t looked at the reaction to the “Get Smart” movie, so I might be wrong). The reason I suspect this is because to make Smart Smart, you have to follow the traditional Smart traits, of essentially him being incompetent and yet competent just enough to make you believe that he’s a master spy in spite of his incompetence. This would mean putting a woman in a role where she’s incompetent, which a lot of the people who push for diversity don’t like. But if you make her competent and only play up that people think she’s incompetent, then you don’t have Get Smart anymore. And if you make her incompetent only because she’s inexperienced, you lose the semi-justified arrogance that Smart displayed. Making her Smart doesn’t mean making her a bimbo — because Adams’ smart wasn’t a “bimbo” — but it does mean making her less than competent. It’d be interesting to see if those calling for a female James Bond are willing to have a female incompetent Maxwell Smart as well.

2) Doctor Who. I also don’t see any problem with a black Doctor, treating that exactly the same way as I’d treat a black James Bond: if the best interested actor happens to be black, go with it. The issues around a female Doctor are a bit more complicated. My first thought was that we had seen female Time Lords in the past, and had had no real reason to think that the Doctor’s regenerations could change gender, and so then we didn’t want to turn this into another “Dax” thing with male and female memories in the same body and all of the issues around then when we’ve gone for decades without having to worry about it. But then in some random surfing I found that it is possible that one of the Master’s incarnations was female, which means that that’s already there. I’m still not convinced it’s something worth exploring in Doctor Who, though, especially considering the shortness of those series.

3) Annie. I’m not a big Annie fan, and so don’t have much to say. The purportedly clever move of making her black to reflect the least desirable adoption trait is clever if intended, but I think a lot was lost then in making Daddy Warbucks black to match, as that would add to the undesirability and allow an exploration of that sort of interracial type of situation. That being said, I can also see people being reasonably upset if they felt that red hair specifically was an important trait of Annie. I don’t think it is for Annie, but if they had done that in a remake, say, of “Anne of Green Gables” then I could understand people saying that the trait itself was important, and not just for what it reflected in the story. But I don’t know enough to say here.

4) Johnny Storm. Making Johnny Storm black raises the immediate question of him and Sue being siblings and how you handle that. In the comments, most people react dismissively to that by citing adoption or interracial marriage, but these are very, very risky. In the adoption case, since they are supposed to have such a close bond it developing through adoption puts that, at least, at risk. Remember, Sue is supposed to have raised him after their mother died (if I’m recalling correctly) and this way it says more about her than about their relationship. And them not being close in terms of race is something that cries out for an explanation, even if some assert that it happens. All that making Johnny black and not making Sue black does is raise issues and problems that likely need to be addressed for even a non-bigoted audience, and what is most damning about it is that all of these problems go away with one solution that almost no one suggests: making them both black. Why can’t they make Sue black as well and maintain all of those relationships and solve all those problems? It’s a sign of rank, PC cowardice to diversify Johnny and not take the obvious next step of doing the same thing to Sue. This is the sort of tokenizing that no one should want.

If they aren’t willing to make both Sue and Johnny black, why not make one of the other characters black? I suspect that many happy about Johnny being black would not be happy with making Ben Grimm black, since he’d end up going to orange and so not “really” being black. But this would be looking at the outside appearance and not the heart of the character. Surely there are interesting things you can do with a character whose outward appearance might have caused problems as well as benefits in the past now in a radically different appearance that has similar issues, and tie that even better in to the psychological issues that kept the Thing the Thing in canon. It’s only if you are shallow and advocate for tokens and not real characters that you can think that a black person in the Thing’s make-up has to end up as not really being black at all. But if you want to play it safe, why not make Reed black? It avoids almost all of the issues, makes him visible, and only has an interracial marriage angle to even be a bit of a problem, which probably isn’t. So, then, why Johnny, even as a token?

The key differentiator in FF is that they are a family. That family relationship starts from Sue and Johnny. There is no reason to risk convoluting that here, especially since there are other options. This is a bad idea and is tokenizing at best.

6) Doctor Strange. Why? Why a female Doctor Strange? You’d have to change a lot to make it work — like, potentially, Clea — and what does it add? Remember, this is an adaptation here, so why change this for the sake of changing it? What do you gain? If you want to explore a female Sorcerer Supreme type, why not introduce Clea and spin her off into her own movie to do that? All this will do is annoy people who wanted to see a Doctor Strange movie and do nothing else.

The last thing we should want is PC diversity, where it is done for show and not for substance. Either you go neutral or you go with what you have. Opposing PC diversity is not bigotry, but is something that we all should do, whether we are interested in Social Justice or just in a good movie.

7 Responses to “Political Correctness, Diversity, and Changing with the Times …”

  1. Crude Says:

    I think that a black James Bond would work, if they simply decided to throw it open and look for the best person for the job, no matter what race it is.

    So is it possible that “well, he’s a man, he’s got an appropriate british accent, and he’s white” would be checkmarks in favor of ‘best person for the job’ here?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I don’t think the last one ought to be, because I can’t see any reason for it to be. The first two, yes. The comment here is more aimed at precluding someone deciding for no reason that “He’s black” ought to be a checkmark itself.

  2. Crude Says:

    Oh , and Merry Christmas.

  3. Hector Muñoz Says:

    Would it be historically accurate for a british cold war top level secret agent to be black? If it would be accurate I don’t see the problem… I agree with you on the problem of a female Bond Agent.

  4. A Female Doctor Who | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] So, the next Doctor is going to be a woman. I’ve mused on this before: […]

  5. Jonathan MS Pearce on Representative Casting | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] And small things can break immersion if they demand an explanation and are not explained.  For example, a recent “Fantastic Four” movie decided to recast Johnny Storm as a black character, to some criticism, but you could argue that, hey, if we can believe that he can become enshrouded in flames without burning up or hurting himself why can’t he be black?  But as I noted in discussing it myself: […]

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